The earliest form of shoe worn in the highlands was a sort of rawhide moccasin. As with modern ‘Jungle boots’ they would inevitably get thoroughly wet and so they had many small holes punched in them to let water run out. This is why brogue shoes have patterns of small holes to this day.

This rawhide moccasin was secured to the leg by crisscrossing the laces up the calf. This visual effect continues in the diced and tartan hose which have been commonly worn since at least the mid 1600’s.

Later highland shoes were flat-soled and buckled, and no different than the buckled shoes worn anywhere else in Europe at the time.

These shoes were low-cut, and a stone in the shoe was a crippling nuisance. The adoption of buttoned canvas spats prevented this and the loss of the entire shoe in the mud of the battlefields of Flanders and elsewhere. Shoe-buckles still occasionally turn up under the plow in the old battlefields of France and Belgium.

Modern highland shoes take 3 forms.

From ‘least’ to ‘most’ formal, they are:

  • The M.o.D.-pattern brogue – a conventional brogue shoe as worn by the British Army,
  • The ‘Ghillie’ brogue – a walking shoe with no tongue and long laces that criss-cross up the calf, and
  • The Buckled shoe – a lightweight patent-leather buckled shoe worn with formal dress.
 ‘Evening wear’ buckled shoe with MacKenzie tartan hose, Scots Guards/ Seaforth-pattern garter knots and 78th Highlanders Sgean dubh.  ‘Day wear’ British Army- pattern brogues worn with Lovat Green hose and red worsted garter knots.  Ghillie brogues are a popular choice for both ‘Day’ and ’Evening’ wear.

(left) ‘Evening wear’ buckled shoe with MacKenzie tartan hose, Scots Guards/ Seaforth-pattern garter knots and 78th Highlanders Sgean dubh.
(center) ‘Day wear’ British Army- pattern brogues worn with Lovat Green hose and red worsted garter knots.
(right) Ghillie brogues are a popular choice for both ‘Day’ and ’Evening’ wear.

Hose and garter-knots

Originally, tartan hose were either cut from the cloth or knitted. ‘Diced’ hose – originally red-and-white (called ‘caddis’ hose) were also commonly worn. They were worn without the top folded over until around 1860.

The folded-over stocking might be another marketing solution to a quality-control problem. Made-to-measure stockings account for circumference and length of the foot, ankle and calf. Mass-produced stockings are produced to shoe size – not leg length.

Making these hose was an important cottage industry. Several diarists of the era mention widely disparate individuals engaged in this activity. The Carmelite nuns of Montreal knitted caddis hose for all ranks of Fraser’s Highlanders during the winter of 1763.

Garter-knots (also called ‘flashes’) have long been used to keep the hose from slipping down. They were originally just strips of coloured cloth tape wound around the top of the hose, tied in a bow and the ends allowed to hang down. Don’t hold up your garters with elastic bands – any highland soldier of more than a few years of service can show you a delicate line of vericose veins around his calf courtesy of stretch elastic garters – use a broad piece of cloth tape instead.

Today, kilt hose are tartan, diced, or plain colours. The plain colours (Lovat blue, Lovat green, Navy, Black, Oatmeal or White) are the most commonly available and affordable.

“White” is over-used because it’s the cheapest to make and therefore I recommend any of the other colours.

Diced or Tartan hose are expensive, but with moderate care they will last a very long time indeed. I have 2 pair which have lasted me 30 years.

There are cheap hose available, but they don’t last very long before they start to come apart.

As with so many other things, the greatest economy lies in buying the best you can afford. You will wind up spending the same in the long run – either with a high initial outlay or through repetition as you replace crap kit as it wears out. Even with this logic, the crap remains a false economy as both ‘quality’ and ‘garbage’ can be seen at a glance.

In order to clean your hose, follow the instructions for cleaning your bonnet. Again, you will ruin your hose if you put them in the washer or dryer!

Spats were originally introduced as a practical way to keep stones out if the shoes and the shoes on the feet.

Properly-fitted spats DO give very good ankle support. For my money, well-fitted spats and triple-soled M.O.D. brogues are lighter and give better support than combat boots, and hobnailed brogues are bone-crushers in a fight.

These days, spats are only worn with military full-dress.

It is nearly impossible to find good-quality spats anymore. ‘Quality’ no longer seems to be an issue, mostly because they are no longer ‘practical’ but only ‘traditional/ceremonial’.

The only acceptable straps are made of leather, and the only acceptable fasteners are buttons. A certain patented ‘hook-and-fuzz’ fastening system has become popular as it is quick to put on. Unfortunately it is equally quick to come undone – frequently of its’ own volition and always when people are watching!

It is an asset to senior citizens and strippers but doesn’t belong on your kit.

Spats are expensive to buy but cheap to make. One of these days (when I’m not so dam’ busy) I will post a page which will show you how to make a better pair of spats than you could ever buy… for under $5.00 per pair!

Cleaning your spats

Soldiers have always painted their spats to keep them white. You can do no better than to stick as close to the original method as you can.

Pipe clay was used up until the 1960’s. It was a blend of yellow ochre and ‘whiting’ (powdered chalk) which the soldiers used to mix themselves, but later became a commercial preparation called ‘Blanco’.

The best stuff you can use today is made by Kiwi™ and comes in a squeeze-bottle.

The worst stuff you can put on your spats is any plastic- or oil-based product that won’t wash off.

Once in a while you will have to wash the accumulated layers of whiting off of your spats.

Soak your spats in the tried-and-true bowl of tepid water. After the whiting has softened a bit, scrub with a plastic- or brass-bristled brush. Don’t use any steel wool or steel-bristle brush as you will get rust stains, and don’t use hot water as your spats WILL shrink to a child’s size

Keep scrubbing and changing the water until the unbleached canvas is entirely exposed. Let the warm water do the work for you – if the bare canvas starts to develop ‘whiskers’, you’ve been scrubbing it too hard. This won’t happen if you use a plastic-bristle brush.

Blot dry with paper towels. You can get away with leaving the spats to air-dry slowly, but a real keener will put them on over socks and shoes and wear them dry. This will limit shrinkage – in fact, the spats will shrink to a perfect fit to your leg, better than any tailor could achieve!

Apply new whiting when the spats are dry. Several coats will be required.

Get in the habit of inspecting your spats (and the rest of your kit as well) for loose or broken buttons and replace or re-sew as required.

A quick search of the internet will find any number of button hooks for sale.

A quick search of the internet will find any number of button hooks for sale.

The easiest and quickest way to put your spats on is with a button-hook. A century ago every woman had at least one of these to get her buttoned boots on. They were common junk-store items up until a few years ago.

Make your own button-hook with a coat-hanger and some duct tape! Use pliers or simply step on one arm of the coat-hanger so that it closes to a loop that’s a little narrower than the diameter of the button. Cut that arm off with nippers and tape the cut end to form a handle.

Push the button-hook through the buttonhole, slip the button into the hook and draw the button through the hole. Presto! No finger-marks on your immaculate spats!